Even a short conversation with Michael Shelden unearths a bevy of who’s who — whether you’re talking about his writing peers, his biographies’ subject matters or the reviewers of his work.
The Indiana State University English professor can add another accolade to the list: National Author Winner for the 2014 Eugene & Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Award. Along with a $10,000 prize, Shelden will be recognized at the sixth annual Indiana Authors Award Dinner Oct. 25, at the Central Library in Indianapolis.
“It’s always nice to get recognized for something you’ve done that has a kind of official feel to it, that some group thinks your work is worthy of being singled out as good. I’ll take that every day,” Shelden said.
The annual National Author award is presented for an entire body of work. For Shelden, that collection consists of numerous feature articles for leading newspapers and five biographies, including
- “Orwell: The Authorized Biography,”[ISU Library PR6029.R8 Z7817 1991]
- “Mark Twain, Man in White: The Grand Adventure of His Final Years” [PS1331 .S45 2010]
- “Young Titan: The Making of Winston Churchill.” [DA566.9.C5 S446 2013 ]
In his biographies, Shelden prefers to research and write about a pivotal slice of a person’s life to illuminate a greater truth.
“I love the idea of finding out what individual people had to do to become great, what resources of character they had to have,” he said. “When you write about people who are that famous, it’s amazing to see how they created that person out of sometimes a wreckage of life — they fashion a character for themselves and that character becomes famous.”
Nonfiction writing gives Shelden the opportunity to combine two of his loves — history and literature. Current events slip by too fast to fully process and appreciate, Shelden says, so he defines history as anything 20 years ago or earlier.
“It’s exciting to me to think I have everything from 1994 backwards to dive back into,” he said.
Shelden’s latest project is on Herman Melville during the “Moby Dick” era.
“The story of how he created the most famous American novel: It’s another slice of life, in other words. You look at how someone worked to create what turned out to be a masterpiece,” he said.
“Moby Dick” didn’t start out as a masterpiece, though; initially, it was a commercial and critical failure. “No one pays attention to Herman Melville for the next 70 years. How do you create a masterpiece, and no one pays attention to it for 70 years? That’s what I call delayed gratification,” Shelden said.
In this so-called Information Age, where every scandal, thought or meal is posted for the world to see, what will biographers of the future have to unearth and discover? Everything, Shelden said.
“People might be in the public eye, but they’re not really telling you who they are,” he said. “They’ve created a public persona. Part of what a good biography does is getting behind that persona.”
People also change, Shelden says. Take President Barack Obama, for instance. He’s still a young man, and once his presidency is over, he could become a completely different man, Shelden said. “The same is true for Bill Clinton. His relationship with the public and our feelings about him have changed since he was president,” Shelden said. “Everyone has some secret or mystery to be revealed. It’s just who we are.”
With this most recent award, Shelden, who was a Pulitzer finalist in 1991, is reminded praise can be fleeting. It used to be only newspapers and magazines or few key groups recognized and reviewed literary work.
“It’s a different world we live in, where you win an award and someone can say something else on a website. Now, you’re evaluated every day. It’s getting harder to please everyone,” he said. “Even plumbers on Angie’s list — we all get reviewed now.”
Contact: Michael Shelden, professor of English, Indiana State University, 812-237-3261 orMichael.Shelden@indstate.edu
Writer: Libby Roerig, media relations assistant director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3790 or firstname.lastname@example.org